Second World War

The Mysterious End of Air Marshal Italo Balbo

Was Italo Balbo, Italy's celebrated Air Marshal, murdered or the victim of a tragic accident? Explore the strange circumstances of his death.

On May 26, 1940, while German forces advanced across France and British troops evacuated Europe, Italian Army Marshal Pietro Badoglio (69) awaited an audience at the Palazzo Venezia in Rome. This was the official residence of Italy’s Fascist leader, Benito Mussolini. Mussolini held the title of Duce and, along with King Victor Emmanuel III, was a co-marshal of the Italian Empire, a position resulting from Badoglio’s 1936 conquest of Ethiopia.

High Command Confrontation

In 1926, under Mussolini’s regime, Badoglio was appointed as Italy’s senior marshal, making him a key figure in the Italian military hierarchy. He led the Italian Supreme Command, which included prominent figures like Italo Balbo, Italy’s only air marshal and the governor-general of Libya. Unexpectedly, both military leaders found themselves in Mussolini’s office while Badoglio was there on routine duties.

Upon entering Mussolini’s grand office, they were met with his dramatic posture—jaw forward, head tilted back, and an intense gaze, all indicative of his typical theatrical displays. Badoglio recalls this vivid scene in his memoirs, “Italy in the Second World War,” where Mussolini revealed his aggressive intentions. He had already sent a message to Hitler, declaring his readiness to join the war against England and France post-June 5th.

Air Marshal Italo Balbo.
Air Marshal Italo Balbo.

Caught off-guard, neither marshal responded immediately. However, Badoglio eventually spoke up, stressing their unpreparedness. He detailed the dire state of the Italian military: only partial equipment and training for their divisions, a grounded air force, inadequate supplies, and a lack of basic necessities like shirts for the troops. Badoglio painted a bleak picture of the potential consequences, emphasizing the suicidal nature of declaring war under such conditions.

The Machinations of War

After serving seven years at the helm of the Italian Air Force and subsequently managing the administration of Libya, Marshal Balbo was well-positioned to assess Italy’s military readiness. He strongly concurred with his senior, Marshal Badoglio, on the inadequacies of the Italian forces. However, their concerns were dismissively overlooked by Mussolini, who optimistically declared that the war was practically won by the Germans and would conclude by September with either a British surrender or invasion.

Mussolini viewed the war as an opportunity to secure Italy’s position in post-war negotiations, believing that the sacrifice of a few hundred Italian lives would ensure Italy a seat at the peace table alongside a victorious Hitler. On June 10, 1940, Mussolini, from his balcony at the Palazzo Venezia, announced Italy’s entry into the war, cheered on by the Fascist faithful. This act was more theatrical than genuine, as both the military leadership and the Italian populace were largely opposed to the conflict, seeing no substantial justification for it.

Historical Ambitions and Unfulfilled Promises

Both Mussolini and the King aimed to reclaim territories such as Nice, Corsica, Savoy, and parts of North Africa—regions that Italy had failed to secure after World War I due to the Versailles Peace Treaty. The dissatisfaction with this outcome fueled the rise of Mussolini’s Fascist Party, which took power in 1922 after the King opted to appoint Mussolini as premier to avoid a potential civil war with the Fascists.

Italian Air Marshal Italo Balbo
Italian Air Marshal Italo Balbo (second from left) poses with German hosts at the Berghof, including Hitler (left), Ritter von Schobert (center), and black-uniformed SS General Julius Schraub.

According to MacGregor Knox in “Hitler’s Italian Allies: Royal Armed Forces, Fascist Regime, and the War of 1940-43,” Mussolini was relentless in his pursuit of war, successfully invading Libya and Ethiopia, participating in the Spanish Civil War, and occupying Albania by 1939. Despite the outward appearance of military strength, the reality was starkly different. The continuous wars throughout the 1930s had depleted Italy’s resources, making another large-scale conflict unsustainable until at least 1943—a timeline agreed upon with Hitler during the signing of the Pact of Steel.

Mussolini’s broader ambition was to expel the British from Egypt, seize the Suez Canal, and dominate the Mediterranean, theoretically transforming it into an “Italian lake.” By 1940, bolstered by the prospect of a combined German-Italian-French naval force, this goal seemed within reach, posing a credible threat to the Royal Navy. Yet, behind the façade of Fascist propaganda lay an empire stretched to its limits, unready for the demands of another global conflict.

Prelude to World War II: Italy’s Reluctant Entry

On September 1, 1939, Hitler initiated World War II by invading Poland. Following Britain and France’s declaration of war on Germany, Mussolini hesitated to join his Axis partner, citing Italy’s unprepared military. It wasn’t until a meeting at Brenner Pass in March 1940, where Hitler announced imminent plans to attack in the West, that Mussolini committed Italy to enter the war after France’s defeat.

However, Italy’s military was severely under-equipped for conflict. The army was disorganized, the air force lagged behind with outdated biplanes despite Marshal Balbo’s earlier efforts to modernize it, and only the navy posed a significant threat to the Allies. Mussolini was aware of these deficiencies but chose to risk joining the war, fearing Hitler might turn against Italy if he remained neutral—a fear that materialized in 1943 with the German invasion following Mussolini’s downfall.

In August 1938, Balbo salutes as he reviews a Luftwaffe honor guard with General Erhard Milch in Berlin.

Balbo: A Dissenting Voice in Fascist Italy

Marshal Italo Balbo, having overseen Libya’s administration since 1933 and avoided involvement in Italy’s aggressive campaigns in Ethiopia and during the Spanish Civil War, held a unique perspective among Fascist leaders. His extensive travels in the Soviet Union, the United States, Africa, and South America—regions that would later oppose Italy in the war—convinced him of the impossibility of the Axis powers defeating the world.

Balbo’s political journey began with his role as one of the Quadrumvirs during the Fascist “March on Rome” in October 1922. Recognized for his capability and influence, Mussolini could not easily dismiss Balbo’s views within the Fascist hierarchy. Unlike many of his contemporaries who viewed Fascism as a tool for conquest, Balbo saw it as a means to improve Italy and its colonies, combat communism, and enhance the nation’s standing through initiatives like his renowned global aerial tours.

Balbo met his death in a Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 Sparviero Regio Aeronautica bomber.
Balbo met his death in a Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 Sparviero Regio Aeronautica bomber.

Balbo’s Formative Years and Political Ascent

Born on June 5, 1896, to a schoolteacher, Balbo was well-educated and graduated from university with a robust commitment to action and journalism. He first met Mussolini in 1914, sharing a vision for Italy to abandon its alliances with Germany and Austria-Hungary in favor of joining the Allies, which Italy did in 1915. Both men served as elite mountain troops during World War I, where they were wounded and decorated for bravery.

After the war, Balbo briefly continued in the military, married, and completed his university education. He flirted with a career in diplomacy or politics but was drawn instead to the escalating political unrest. By 1922, Balbo was a driving force in the Fascist Party, pushing for aggressive action that culminated in the seizure of power in Rome. His early republican leanings gradually gave way as Mussolini’s power grew and the monarchy’s influence waned, setting the stage for the tumultuous years leading to World War II.

The Rise and Transformation of Fascist Italy’s Air Force

On January 12, 1923, Mussolini took a significant step to formalize and control the violent Fascist squads by establishing the Voluntary Militia for National Security. General Emilio DeBono was appointed as its chief, with Italo Balbo serving as a member of its high command. The next year, a scandal involving the murder of an anti-Mussolini Socialist member of the Italian House of Deputies implicated Balbo and other top Fascists. Despite the political tumult, Balbo advised Mussolini to punish those directly responsible for the murder, leading to DeBono’s resignation and Balbo ascending to head the Fascist Militia, further consolidating his influence within the party.

In this atmosphere of internal strife, Mussolini, sensing both a threat and an opportunity in Balbo’s popularity and capabilities, encouraged his involvement in the Italian Air Force. This branch had been established as a separate entity from the Army in 1923, a testament to the strategic importance Mussolini placed on air power. Italy, having pioneered military aviation during its conquest of Libya in 1911 and subsequently developing a robust air force during World War I, was positioned to expand its aerial capabilities further under Balbo’s leadership.

The victim of friendly antiaircraft fire
The victim of friendly antiaircraft fire, Balbo’s plane lies a mass of twisted wreckage.

Balbo’s Vision and Influence on Italian Aviation

As early as 1923, while still a general of the Fascist militia, Balbo advocated for the potential of aviation in shaping Italy’s future. His belief in the strategic importance of air power was profound, as evidenced by his statement, “I believe that the future of Italy is in the sky.” Appointed as undersecretary to the Aeronautica in 1926, with Mussolini holding the secretary’s portfolio, Balbo dedicated himself to transforming the Italian Air Force. He achieved his pilot’s license in 1927 and embarked on enhancing the air force’s capabilities by training pilots and crews, constructing an air ministry building in Rome, and leading a series of ambitious global aerial tours by 1933.

Balbo’s success, however, bred envy and concern in Mussolini. Balbo’s rising popularity and effective administration, particularly as the governor-general of Italian Libya—a role he was relegated to by Mussolini as a means of sidelining him—only exacerbated tensions between the two. Balbo’s governance in Libya is still regarded positively, further underscoring his administrative competence and charisma.

The rift between Balbo and Mussolini deepened over diverging views on foreign alliances. Post-1937, as Mussolini grew increasingly admiring of Nazi Germany, Balbo remained skeptical and openly criticized the burgeoning alliance with the Nazis. His interactions with prominent Nazi figures like Göring, Hess, and Himmler during their visits to Libya, and meetings with Hitler and Goebbels, solidified his opposition. Balbo warned Mussolini against the alliance, predicting that it would ultimately betray Italy—a prophecy that would come to fruition in the later stages of the war.

Building façades were bedecked with flags of Nazi Germany
Building façades were bedecked with flags of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy during Hitler’s state visit to Rome in May 1937.

The Tragic End of Marshal Balbo

Italo Balbo’s reaction to Mussolini’s decision to join the war alongside the Nazis was one of profound dismay. He foresaw the destruction that this conflict would bring to Fascist Italy, his career, and his life—a prediction that tragically came true. Balbo believed the war would be brief and deadly, and ominously warned his colleagues in the Fascist Grand Council of their grim fates, famously stating, “there won’t be enough lampposts in Piazza Venezia to hang you all.” Indeed, by the war’s end, many of them met violent deaths at the hands of either die-hard Fascists following Mussolini’s fall in 1943 or by the Red Partisans, precluding any need for war crimes trials akin to those in Nuremberg or Tokyo.

Resigned to what he saw as a hopeless situation, Balbo continued his military duties in Libya, sandwiched between British and French forces. As the theater commander-in-chief, he maintained a brave front, preparing for conflict against the British. His leadership ended abruptly when his aircraft was shot down on June 28, 1940, killing everyone on board, including Balbo.

Immediately following the incident, rumors circulated that Mussolini, out of jealousy and fear, might have orchestrated Balbo’s death. This theory suggested that Balbo was deliberately targeted by Italian Navy antiaircraft guns. However, both Italian Foreign Minister Count Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini’s son-in-law, and Balbo’s first English biographer, Dr. Claudio G. Segré, believed the downing was a tragic accident, exacerbated by Balbo’s disregard for certain safety protocols he himself had once championed.

The Fateful Flight

The details of Balbo’s final flight highlight a series of unfortunate errors and oversights. On that day, Balbo piloted a Savoia Marchetti SM.79 bomber, overloaded with nine passengers, from the normal crew capacity of five. Despite being familiar with the flight protocols that required a 360-degree turn at 300 meters altitude for identification by friendly forces, Balbo neglected these rules, flying instead at 700 meters without completing the required maneuver.

As Balbo approached Tobruk, where his plane was expected, a misunderstanding occurred. The naval batteries, not having been informed of his arrival and recent enemy air activity, mistook his aircraft for a returning British bomber. The pilot in the trailing SM.79, recognizing the potential for friendly fire, attempted to signal Balbo to adjust his course, but to no avail.

On the ground, the chaotic environment contributed to the tragedy. The gunners, poorly trained and lacking adequate surveillance equipment, failed to properly identify the incoming aircraft. Amidst this confusion, a few rounds were fired before the gunners realized their mistake, but it was too late. Balbo’s plane was hit, leading to his untimely death.

The incident not only marked the end of one of Fascist Italy’s most charismatic leaders but also underscored the broader disarray within the Italian military command and the tragic consequences of inadequate communication and preparation.

The Tragic Demise of Marshal Balbo

The catastrophic end of Marshal Italo Balbo’s life was marked by intense confusion and a tragic misidentification. According to Dr. Claudio G. Segré, when the initial anti-aircraft volley was fired, it triggered a widespread response. Anti-aircraft fire erupted from multiple sources including land positions, the cruiser San Giorgio, submarines, and other ships. A ground observer described the scene as “a real inferno unleashed around the two aircraft.” Amidst the chaos, Balbo, realizing he was being fired upon by his own forces, attempted to make a rapid descent to land quickly, deploying his landing gear which unfortunately made him an easier target. It was either a shell from the San Giorgio or a 20mm incendiary shell from a land-based naval battery that struck the fuel tanks of his aircraft, I-MANU. The aircraft subsequently crashed near the harbor and exploded on impact, leading to cheers from the gunners who believed they had downed an enemy plane.

Aftermath and Remembrance

The aftermath of the disaster saw Balbo’s remains identified only by dental records among the wreckage. His office in Tripoli hosted his coffin in state for two days, with an official mourning period extending for five days. Mussolini’s reaction to the news of Balbo’s death was notably indifferent, while Hermann Göring, representing Nazi Germany, attended a memorial service in Berlin along with the Italian ambassador. In a poignant return, Balbo’s remains were finally brought back to Italy in 1970 by his family and laid to rest near Orbetello, his renowned air training base, though his gravestone remains unmarked by an epitaph.

Interestingly, it was Adolf Hitler who, during a conversation at his Führer Headquarters in Ukraine on August 5, 1942, offered what might be considered the most fitting tribute to Balbo. Hitler reflected on the loss of Balbo as a “great tragedy” and described him as a potential successor to Mussolini, embodying the spirit of the Renaissance—a man whose very name carried significant weight. Hitler noted Balbo’s unique position of influence within both the Fascist Party and the armed forces. He lamented the irony of Balbo’s death, shot down by the very anti-aircraft guns of his country, highlighting the tragic fate of a prominent and respected leader.

History Affairs
Kim Luu is a writer specializing in Chinese history and civilization. Born and raised in Vietnam, a country with a shared cultural heritage with China, he developed an early fascination and conducted in-depth studies on the greatest civilization in East Asia.

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